Making Program Perception The Reality Again?

By now most have seen ‘Thunder and Lightning’, documenting Will and Ralph from playground kids to retired big leaguers. Pretty good play is given to our fabled 1985 Diamond Dogs though I wish more had been said about Dan, Gator ‘n Frank, Roark, and R.P himself. Maybe too much time was invested in end-of-career issues but overall Bulldog folk are pleased with the product.

Much as it meant to we who knew the guys, that team as players and people, it also should be significant for those who only know the names and legends. Remember, no current Mississippi State player was born when the guys were bashing fences from Dudy Noble Field to Omaha. Thirty years is a long, long time in any sport. Yes even baseball.

I state the obvious because of one unfortunate aspect to T&L’s timing. It aired when everyone recognized the 2015 heirs to 1985’s legacy were not going to play post-season. Unfortunate for the current Diamond Dogs, I mean, and the natural comparisons.

Yet in a weird way, this could become fortunate for Bulldog Baseball of the future.

We’ve been exploring the present state of State. Useful or not, there were ideas batted around about correcting the course for ’16 and beyond. Some are utterly obvious, like recruit Better Baseball Players, though as explained there’s more to it. Some are surely controversial, particularly suggesting stronger pre-conference scheduling and more road games.

Everything said so far is distilled from discussions which began long before this past season. I mean really long before. As strange as it will surely seem, my own ponderings about exactly what Bulldog Baseball is and should be began just a couple of seasons after our last SEC Championship. In 1989, if any need reminding.

Does that mean some of us think too much and too hard about this program? Surely. But if MSU baseball wasn’t regarded as something special nobody would care to write about what is it, what can it be, what should it be. Or read about it either.

So. Let’s make clear what the program is not. It is not a SEC championship program. Hasn’t been for many, many years, more than most of us are willing to admit. Moreover, Bulldogs have rarely contended for the league title. Last year was closest in quite a while, thanks in no small part to a softer SEC schedule. And they were still seeded fifth at Hoover on tie-break. I’ll always wonder what would have happened if the 2013 team had played ‘14’s schedule.

Before that? The 2003 team was two games back and fourth overall. 2000 finished third but that was eight wins behind the runaway champs. No, since that ’89 title State’s highest SEC regular-season finish is third; 1990, 1991, 1992, 1997.

SEC success isn’t everything. Maybe not even so high on the priority checklist any longer. The ’89 champs did not reach Omaha after all. The ’90, ’97, ’98, ’07, and ’13 clubs all did and without benefit of a true SEC title. Increasingly it seems college baseball is following the lead of basketball where all that matters is NCAA Tourney time; everything else is build-up and preparation.

The absolute difference from basketball is, whereas that sport’s tournaments are played at assigned sites…baseball hosts campus Regionals. These Regionals are earned by regular season success, most obviously by conference championships. I know, elders still muse about back when Regionals were bought by whoever could draw the most crowds or just write a check. That changed in the late 90s and as a purist again I agree it is the right way to do it…even if my program is one that could bid based on gate receipts every year. Fair is fair.

Now, if reporting lack of SEC titles for over a quarter-century was painful, gird yourself for worse words. I’ve researched how many first-round Regionals have been hosted by current SEC members 2001-14. Y’all know part of what is coming: that in 15 seasons now Mississippi State has hosted two Regionals; in 2003 and 2013. There was of course the super Regional of 2007 after winning at Tallahassee, and that weekend at DNF blasted NCAA tourney attendance records.

I figure most fans know this fact, just two Regionals in fifteen seasons, at some level. But do we really acknowledge it? We have a remarkable knack for disconnecting realities after all and I suspect we need it slapped in our collective faces before confronting it.

So let’s pile on the agony, eh? By quick count, only two current SEC members have hosted fewer first round Regionals in the same span: Kentucky and Missouri, one each. State is tied with Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee (Auburn and Tennessee for heavens’ sakes!) at two hosts each. Suddenly the perspective shifts and not in a welcome way.

Now. Let’s make it really hurt. Or make you really, really angry. In the same span Ole Miss has hosted six Regionals and three super rounds. There, I put the unthinkable in print. We can downplay regular season results, though losing three-straight SEC series is tough to take. Or losing nine of 12 series since 2004 for that matter. Yes, look it up, if the stomach can handle it.

This is no fun to recite, and dangerous to discuss. But the objective conclusion is inescapable: whether in SEC or NCAA terms Bulldog Baseball has fallen behind in the home state for a dozen years or so. We try to diminish the hurt pointing to more CWS trips, more SEC Tourney titles in the same stretch. At this point in program history though recognizing reality is necessary to change it. Or change it back.

Because I’m reasonably confident it can and eventually should change. Probably never back entirely to the Good Old Days. And to be accurate it has to be reported that Clark & Palmeiro and Crew never swept the Rebels either, any season. As Billy Joel puts it, ‘the good old days weren’t always good’ as we like to remember. Miss-remember, I mean.

All the above winds us around to today’s true theme. Question, rather. What is Mississippi State’s real place in the baseball world? Not perception, place.

Because perception remains remarkably high. Even inexplicably high. As noted this is a program which hasn’t won a league title for 26 seasons nor seriously contended for about 15 of them. If it’s worth anything to add, State is the only long-term SEC member on this side of the league which has never finished first or tied for first in the Western Division, either. Ouch.

The national image also stays somewhat stronger than on-field results merit since, well, 1985. Though MSU teams have been back to Omaha five times since and played in regionals more often than not, only 2013 came close to winning it all. And about as close as a club can get, too. But that’s the exception as everyone else after ’85 was done in two or three games. Meanwhile Georgia, LSU and South Carolina repeatedly, and Vanderbilt have won national crowns; while Georgia, SC, Alabama, and Florida have been runners-up. As stated in T&L, all those programs owe a significant debt to Mississippi State for showing everyone else the way back in the mid-80s, and forcing the rest of the league to upgrade baseball programs like it or not. Now, most love it.

Gratitude for ancient Dog deeds does nothing to help today, other than again image. And we’re still talking perception over place for the moment. I do believe the over-sized image of MSU is simple to explain.

It is you.

Folk who buy season tickets whether or not they can even come to campus, and of course those who do use their seats. Or the concourse, or the outfield, or any corner of the facility on big days and even some not-as-big days. Whatever happens on the field there are people or at least spoken-for seats outside the field year in and year out. Maybe not in the regular numbers of the g.o.d.’s but enough to prove—this program matters.

And when the team is rolling in late-season, or sent to a road Regional, never mind reaches Omaha, the fans follow like…well, locusts have a bad rep so that’s not a good simile but you get the idea. I know this: two years ago checking in at one of the three hotels I eventually utilized during two weeks’ stay, the nice desk lady commented how much Omaha business folk loved having the Bulldogs in town. We’re still not their favorites; Texas and LSU are held in higher regard, especially as she said Longhorns are very free spenders. I guess us Southerners grip the wallet closer. But State is right behind on the Omaha wish list and boy, isn’t that a commentary for a program which doesn’t get there nearly so regularly, eh?

This same support is why on message boards I’ve flown the flag for the planned new stadium. True, I’ll have to be convinced ground get be broken in June 2016 as planned. Inside reports are the first half of the funding is or has come smoothly, it’s the second half that has administration a little concerned now. If anyone has a spare $10 million or so they aren’t using at the moment, I can give you a contact who’ll be glad to talk about sticking your name on the new facility’s fascia. In great big bold Bulldog colors, too.

What I am convinced of, is A) the funding will ultimately be obtained; and B) this is a must-do deal.

A stadium project is not built upon what any one team, one season, one coach, one administration does and says. No, not even the ’87 construction project. That was in the works for two whole years and kicked-around even longer before the glory of 1985. And I must add, with a series of ADs at the time who weren't sold on baseball in the first place. It got done anyway because you fans made it mandatory.

2015 might give some donors brief pause but they'll be fine. The new stadium is a statement in every sort of important way about the forever faith in Bulldog Baseball. After all, did State hit the ‘pause’ button on renovating Davis Wade Stadium when football went briefly backwards in 2011? Not at all. The result was a splendid facility unveiled just in time to coincide with a record-setting 2014 season.

Not all projects will enjoy this fortunate timing. That isn’t the point. In fact, I suggest doubling-down on a new stadium, especially of the sort we are shown in mailers and presentations, is the right approach exactly when a team may be struggling. It says again permanent plans aren’t deflected by temporary conditions.

It also ought, my gawsh it ought, to boost improving the teams. Yes I’m circling back to the More Good Ballplayers priority because any objective coach and fan will admit teams aren’t better than their collective talent. OK, there are the rare exceptions of senior-laden squads of sufficient skills and unscathed by drafts (a reflection of the talent level) which rattle better team’s cages. Central Arkansas darned nearly did two years ago here.

On the whole, in the main, total talent trumps all. In the context of today’s piece it again verges into uncomfortable territory. I.E., why is Mississippi State so, well, average by SEC standards?

Sure SEC standards are pretty darned high. But when that’s the league you live in, that’s the scale you’re measured by. And if record is a reasonable measure, Mississippi State has been average for quite a while. Often less than average. As stated before, any team ultimately is what its record says it is. And since that last SEC title in ’89 the MSU league record is…366 wins, 376 losses. Average.

A baseball connoisseur whose opinions I generally agree with takes these numbers and says well, it means State has been average for a long time; thus it’s reasonable to see average as the baseline. I know what he means, and the facts back up his view.

I just don’t agree with the pronouncement. OK, it’s more I don’t want to agree, but it is my choice. As I suspect of 95% of ticket-buying fans. They may understand the place but they darned sure want the perception.

Which I submit is where and why better-than-average should be…no, not the goal, that’s always the stated goal. Every MSU coach and player says in February their goal is Omaha and nothing else. In the reported 30-year context that should sound silly. Yet it is exactly that they always say this not with ordinary hope but a degree of, yes, expectation is the correct word for it, which is significant. Really significant.

There is enough real history here, enough ‘peak’ seasons sticking out from the norm, that teases Bulldog Baseball to entertain more than the ordinary expectations. And, raise serious questions considered about why isn’t the program there today?

Warning, we’re about to get ugly again. I said earlier that State has lost top-spot in our state. While as recently as a couple of years ago this would have put me on somebody’s pitchfork I think a general and grudging agreement has settled in. Don’t throw Governors Cups at me, it’s the SEC series which count. More infuriating, is our flat statement that it has been done by better recruiting.

It’s too easy to toss out reminders of really bad choices by previous regimes. Asked why he didn’t sign a certain in-state stud, Ron Polk reputedly responded that State already had a first baseman. Do I really need say anything else about lack of recruiting in the mid-2000s? Oh, and in the fabulous irony only baseball really offers, said first baseman was clutch at the plate in State’s 2005 SEC Tourney title game win over, yep you got it, those same spurned Rebel stars. It was fun for a week, then the Rebels won their home Regional and hosted a super anyway as State lost first-round on the road.

But what of more recent seasons? One thing nobody can accuse State’s staff of is lack of effort in scouting and signing players. Never ever confuse my calls for More Good Ballplayers with failing to try signing them. I know this coaching staff too well to second-guess the effort put into recruiting. If you’ve seen the effort put into strength program, winter workouts, practices, scrimmages, and reams and reams and reams of charting (a significant section of the dugout is now occupied by tables for chart keeping) then you also grasp the effort invested in recruiting. Maybe more in fact.

Which gets to the ultimate question: why is this endless effort not producing at least comparable total talent as they are bringing to Oxford? I told you it was going to get ugly. I also ask it because, truly, I do not know why and want to if anyone does have The Answer.

More likely there is no one answer. Some signings are just guesses despite close observation and outside experts’ opinions. The same as say Dan Mullen watching a kid run fast, jump high, look strong, and yet put in padding can’t play college football. It happens. Baseball, I believe, is an even greater guessing-game because the margins can be so…speculative. Just because the radar readings are comparable for two prospects, the actual pitches as seen by a batter often are entirely different. One hits the mitt, one leaves the yard.

I do think variations in competition isn’t as much a factor as years-back, what with so many summer leagues making the matchups more consistent. If you knew how many miles MSU coaches put on the courtesy cars in June and July, you’d appreciate the effort all the more. So again, why are Rebel rosters on the whole superior to State rosters for the past decade? Do their coaches have a better eye for details; better experts to advise? Or, and I think this is more the case, is it just some subtle combination of little things clicking a bit better for the rival…for right now?

Because, such things can change. They do change. Let’s also be clear that for a few years now Ole Miss has gambled more on signing players projected as high drafts. Two years ago they lost three recruits in the first round alone…and just imagine had two or all them come to school, what the 2014 College World Series would have become? The SEC would still have won the national title but the winner, well…there would have been scores of State folk on suicide watch last summer.

For so many years we had that Omaha trump card to play in the bragging rights game. No longer. And maybe it’s for the best if it inspires fresh urgency on our side to catch up. Which I have to think is going to happen in the natural cycle of such things.

But why stop there? Mississippi State ambitions can’t be confined to catching up with a rival and regaining top-spot in this state. Let’s put it another way. Why has Louisiana State won ten SEC crowns since State’s last? By the way, maybe Alabama ought to be the program asking this question. They have 13 SEC titles all-time but only one since 1983. Florida has 13 all-time, State ten.

When I was told as recently as last week that we aren't LSU, I agreed for a moment, then caught myself and asked…why not? Why should Mississippi State cede any claim on becoming the league’s leader? The answer was, the 1980s were a long time ago. OK, true, but how does that answer the original question?

And again parenthetically, you might accuse me of double-standards since I don’t berate football for not signing the same talents and numbers as Alabama and LSU every year. Guilty as charged. SEC football is different, the Western Division is an entity unlike anything seen in college major team sports ever, and if I have to explain that then you wouldn’t understand anyway.

In the 1990s and much of the 2000s this was a legitimate position to hold of course. Nobody who knows the SEC game denies that everything changed a quarter-century ago when LSU along with Georgia discovered the college baseball equivalent of nuclear weapons: lottery-based scholarships to use for in-state recruits while saving the 11.7 athletic scholarships for out-of-state recruits. State, as well as Ole Miss, Alabama, and Auburn had no such aid. It didn’t kill any of these programs, it simply gave others opportunities that couldn’t be countered. Oh, and as we explained in a long 2004 D.B. paper piece, not all lottery-money grants were created or graded the same.

Today this is mostly moot. Confusing as the formula might be to explain, just know that non-lottery state schools had much of the disadvantage negated by NCAA rules put into effect five or so years ago. So we can’t use scholarships to excuse or explain. Also, as we saw in 2006-07 with LSU, extra grants don’t guarantee continued success. Or take Georgia, by popular opinion what should be the best baseball job in the conference if not country. Yet they’ve ridden the wildest boom-and-bust cycles of all in our league. And it sure as heck ain’t for lack of local talent, either.

The point being that while State’s slide in the mid-90s had some legit reasons, and there were disadvantages for another decade or so, the playing field has been balanced enough and for long enough. That even programs with every advantage can fail in short or long terms. I still have to ask why then is State, which itself has so much to recruit with, not acquiring rosters to contend for regular-season titles?

For some sort of example, look at this year’s first- and second-team All-SEC squads. No Bulldogs are on either, though Ryan Gridely was all-freshman. There were no Dogs voted first- or second- teams in 2008, ’09, and ’10 as well. Records naturally influence voting but a star gets respected whatever the rest of the team does.

It’s just one theory, but some suggest State has tried to play it too ‘fine line’ with targeted prospects. As in, looking for quality players but not those with a serious chance of high-drafting. On one level it certainly makes sense, and State has had little draft damage under this regime. Though there are surprises, as Dale Burdick—you did remember him?—was drafted last June in the final round and still signed. That’s a kid who never wanted to go to college in the first so whadaya do?

At the same time there have been recent trends of more top-five drafts going to college. Not nearly all but enough that a college coach can justifiably take the chance. Ole Miss did pay a price for ambition but they’re still in the NCAAs this year so the rest of their recruits obviously weren’t scared away by high-profile signee classmates. Some have suggested State has been a bit timid in this area, and I won’t argue. I will say that if it’s true, and a guy is anxious about coming here because another player with equal or better rating has also signed, then he probably doesn’t have the individual competitiveness Cohen has publicly the current club lacked.

It is an encouraging, no pun intended, sign that this recruiting class looks like State is shooting for the moon. Of the 18 known recruits, one un-reported signee and what we’re told is five invited walk-ons, Cohen said last week as many as 11 could be drafted. Analysts project up to four as being drafted in the danger range. Yes, losing those four best would be a blow.

But you can’t lose anyone you don’t sign first; and signing them keeps other programs from doing the same and potentially keeping them. And if only one or two do take contract offers, that is a great big win for the program.

For that matter just raising the recruiting ambitions, and gambles, is a sign State recognizes the all-important need for More Good Ballplayers. As reported yesterday too, it’s going to cost 2015 underclassmen their places on the roster. Further proof the intensity meter is in the red, or maroon, range.

Just as it should be if Mississippi State intends to do more than catch up with rivals and be better than SEC average. Perception doesn’t match place any more…but who says it cannot be that way again? Thunder and Lightning is history of course.

And history is always free for the making. Especially for Bulldog Baseball.

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